Flu highlights hygiene’s import

Published 11:23 pm Thursday, April 30, 2009

Inevitably, two cases of swine flu have been identified in Virginia, confirming the obvious conclusion that viruses don’t recognize state borders any more than they do national borders in a 21st century in which nearly any part of the world is accessible in only a few hours. Both of the Virginia cases were in people who had recently visited Mexico, and both were relatively mild — health officials said the victims already were on the mend.

The news of the Virginia cases came on the heels of the revelation that a member of President Barack Obama’s delegation to Mexico also had come down with the illness, which has since spread to members of his family.

For obvious reasons, there is growing concern about visiting Mexico, where the virus is suspected of sickening nearly 3,000 people and killing as many as 168. Cruise ships have stopped allowing passengers to visit ports in that nation, and even soccer games are being played there without spectators.

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But one moral of this pandemic is that there’s very little comfort to be found in the geographic remoteness of viral outbreaks. It was almost stunning how quickly the World Health Organization announced that the current pandemic could not be contained, and the unaffected portions of the US and, in fact, the world shrink each day, confirming that WHO prognosis.

While the virus has caused deaths, its mortality rate has been blessedly low: This isn’t the Ebola virus, and it doesn’t appear that the pulp fiction nightmares of entire towns wiped out will become reality. People contract plenty of other illnesses each day that are far more deadly. In fact, 36,000 people die of seasonal flu each year, according to Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley. That’s why health officials urge citizens to get flu shots each year.

As much as anything, this pandemic could serve as a wake-up call about the importance of good hygiene. The best way to fight any flu outbreak, Remley said in a press conference Thursday evening, is to stay home if you are sick, call your doctor, wash your hands and cover your cough or sneeze.

They’re basic precautions, but in a world with a highly mobile population, they are still vital.